Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Disney Experience: Part 1, The Magic Kingdom

Walt Disney World (WDW) is not a theme park, WDW is 47 square miles of reclaimed Florida swampland, on which has been built arguably the world’s largest tourist and entertainment resort consisting of: The Magic Kingdom; EPCOT; Disney MGM Studios; Animal Kingdom; water parks; golf courses; twenty resort hotels; Downtown Disney; a sports complex; and much more besides. Not all of the land purchased by the Disney Corporation has been utilised, and developments still continue in this thriving tourist area.

I went to WDW in January 2007, to meet Tourism students on industrial work placement in a variety of locations – besides that, my personal motivation was a search for new thrillertainment experiences on world class white knuckle rides.

My first visit was to the Magic Kingdom, and as I was not staying at a Disney resort, I had to take a taxi to WDW, and enter the Magic Kingdom using a monorail. It was late January, and the enormous car parks surrounding the monorail were almost empty – I was quite glad of this, as it would mean smaller queues on the park. The monorail ride was impressive, along the way it was possible to view the Disney lake, and in the distance Cinderella’s Castle – the WDW icon. Footage from my arrival and this ride can be viewed below.

I arrived at the front gates to find a strict security process of bag searches and finger printing to get into the park, which everyone was subjected to. The bag searches were quite fast and the queue to get through them did not take as long as expected. They are evidently in place to prevent people from bringing anything into the park that the Disney corporation does not want there (although they didn’t stop Banksy at the California park), including drugs and alcohol, as well as more sinister items such as weapons and firearms. In light of the September 11th attacks, it was revealed by several news organisations that WDW (which after all is an American icon) could be a possible future target for terrorists, so having high profile security checks is all part of a process to reassure the visiting public that WDW is a safe place to be. At this point I hasten to add that the car park by the mono rail, as well as the station and the mono rail train itself had a minimal security presence so the real security effectiveness of these bag checks is quite minimal. After all, a terrorist attack anywhere in the 47 square miles of the complex would cause a media frenzy, and have a huge impact upon visitor numbers from an American public that (as Micheal Moore points out in Fahrenheit 9/11) is too easily influenced by the media.

The finger printing technology was also disconcerting – I wasn’t happy about surrendering my biometric information to a global corporation, but I had to do so in order to visit the park. I did enquire about this and was told that it is used to prevent people from passing their tickets to other people – every Disney ticket has a matching finger print. As a revenue protection mechanism fingerprinting does make sense, but after undergoing the same process at the airport upon entering the USA, it did leave me feeling a little paranoid that my movements stateside were being tracked…especially in light of the fact that according to Eliot (2003) in his book Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince, Walt Disney himself spied for J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI – one cannot help but wonder if there remains a long lasting relationship between the Disney Corporation and the US government.

Upon entering the Magic Kingdom itself, it did not take long to find Main Street, and witness for myself the view to Cinderella’s Castle as seen on numerous TV programmes and in countless newspapers and magazines. Attention to detail was more than evident, and the park immediately struck me as being very clean. As I wandered down the street I realised that just about every building was a concession of one sort or another, including gift shops, bakeries, restaurants, tea rooms, and fast food outlets. In each concession there were people in costumes (known as cast members). To be truthful I didn’t find this much of an attraction – in essence it seemed to be spending money to enter a theme park to spend more money….no thank you. So off I set in search of some thrillertainment which is really what I came for.

The view down Main Street to Cinderella's Castle

A show was in progress outside of Cinderella’s Castle, and the piped audio to this could be heard all the way down Main Street. It was evidently aimed at children, but the constant reference to dreams and magic seemed both too much of a step from reality for my liking, and a little sycophantic – needless to say it grated on me rather quickly.

The idea of each Disney theme park is take the visitors out of reality, and immerse them in a carefully controlled ‘fantasy’ environment. This ‘virtual reality’ may work for many visitors, but it takes more than piped music and people dressed as mammals for me to just forget everything else that is going on in the world. I headed towards the train station to visit Frontierland, and en route I witnessed a trademark Disney parade – which in all fairness was no better than something that the majorettes could put have on. I was already beginning to feel a big Disney disappointment was on the cards. The reality did not seem to be as impressive as the hype that had brought me to the Magic Kingdom. This parade can be viewed on the footage below…..

Frontierland was little better, although the theme was very different, based on a Wild West / Tom Sawyer era. I did however find me some rootin’ tootin’ thrillertainment courtesy of the Big Thunder Mountain (BTM) rollercoaster, which was built in 1980 and replicated at all other world incarnations of Disney Land. With a top speed of 36 miles per hour BTM is never going to win any awards for speed, height or adrenalin inducement – but it does provide a good long ride of three minutes and fourteen seconds which most modern rollercoasters with their ‘shoot-you-high, turn-you-upside-down, then-bring-you-back’ philosophy simply cannot compete with. In peak season queues for this ride must be pretty horrendous, but I only had to wait in line for ten minutes. Footage of the ride can be viewed below…..

I then went looking for Splash Mountain – Frontierland’s second white knuckle ride – but unfortunately – it was closed which I found unbelievable. It isn’t as though there are enough white knuckle rides that you might not miss one of them – in white knuckle terms, Disney was running at 66% capacity – and at an entrance fee of nearly $47, this was simply not good enough.

I got back on the train that circles the park to visit Fantasyland where I spent approximately five minutes before returning to the station to wait for the train onwards – had I been five years old or a Disney fanatic, Fantasyland might have appealed to me, but as a slightly cynical thirty-something from down-to-earth Yorkshire, England it held no appeal whatsoever.

By the time the train had arrived (I waited an unusually long 15 minutes) and I had got my bearings to take me to Tomorrowland and Space Mountain , I realised that I was running out of time, as I had a late afternoon appointment at Downtown Disney and little idea of how to get there. So I ended up staying on the train to get off at Liberty Square, where I left the park the same way I entered it. Even my exit from the park proved eventful as a rather surly man wearing Mickey Mouse hands initially refused my exit through an open gate because I wasn’t in a wheelchair – what difference does it really make? Oh I forgot, I have to do things the Disney way – right?

To get to Downtown I found out that I was required to catch a bus to a Disney Resort Hotel (I chose Key West as it sounded nice) and would change there for a Downtown bus. In front of me in the queue to board the bus, a little girl with her parents was having a coughing fit. The bus pulled up and in a moment of ‘Basil Fawlty’ customer dis-service the driver refused to allow them on board until the girl had stopped coughing, ‘in case she coughs something up’ – to add insult to injury he then asked the family to stand behind a billboard so that other people in the queue would not be able to see them. I realise that part of the WDW remit is to shield visitors from reality in a place of ‘magic’ and ‘dreams’, but I doubt at that particular moment that this family felt like they were anywhere magical, and an echo of discomfort resonated along the queue. At least however, the driver waited for them, and eventually after five minutes or so they boarded. They left the bus at the same stop as I did, and in a moment of complete irony the driver piped up ‘have a magical day y’all’ – yeah right.

My first experience of Disney was far from positive, I entered the park full of excitement about what unknown wonders might lay ahead, but I left it, disillusioned, disappointed and largely disinterested in the Magic Kingdom, and I seriously doubt if I will ever go back.

I was due to visit Disney MGM Studios the next day – so I was hoping for something much, much, better……


pisana said...


Stuart Moss said...

Ciao to you too!

Tim said...

Hi Stuart,

Good Read. Have you seen John Frost's review of your post?

Another good read!


Stuart Moss said...

Hi Tim, thanks for that - yes I read it about an hour ago, and I was rather pleased that somebody else actually reads my blog!! As well of course for his positive comments towards my post.

I'll leave a comment on John's page when I have published my Disney-MGM report.

Anonymous said...

I am a WDW fan who has been there countless time, and was sad that you did not have a magical experience. I do think you need to go back, because you really missed some good stuff! You did not see the real 3:00 parade, but a sideline one - the afternoon parade is wonderful. And, you did not see Fantasyland, but were in toontown - a place for toddlers! And in my opinion you missed the best part - the evening parade and fireworks. Please give the magic another chance.


Anonymous said...

I agree with Holley.

Of course, with all forms of entetainment, I guess your milage will vary. Some things do require quite a bit from the individual entertained, to complete the illusion. If you see an opera for instance, there are many requirements of the audience, in terms of seating, noise level, expectations regarding where to look (toward the stage), dress codes, and a variety of other decorums necessary for you to fully enjoy the experience. Disney World is no different - in fact, it requires even more immersion of perspective and attitude.

For a "30-something slightly cynical man from Yorkshire," it sounds like your ability to actively participate was limited, and I can't help but read something into your opening sentence, describing the place as "47 miles of reclaimed swampland." If you aren't into it, you just aren't into it.

I would suggest the opera for you. Just remember to do your part. :)

- Chris

Anonymous said...

A very good read that, mind you its a good job you didnt go when they were busy, which is normally 10 mths of the year, othewise you would have comitted suicide. WDW is great if your under 10 and have very fit parents to look after you,otheriwse avoid it at all costs. At this present time the crowds are far to big and the costs to prohibitive to get much enjoyment from it at all. Go back 20 years and it was superb.